A Royall Juggle

Response #2: How crowdsourcing could alleviate my fear of tornadoes

Posted on: November 23, 2010

Kate’s tweet about crowdsourcing weather research grabbed my attention so I decided to delve deeper into the topic. I’ve been fascinated with extreme weather, more specifically tornadoes, since I was young and am still usually the first to know about the latest warnings wherever I am.  Looking back, I think my fear and fascination began during an eventful day at the babysitter’s house. I remember watching the Weather Channel report a tornado warning for our area and ducking in a hallway in the middle of the house with all the other kids. We stayed there and prayed for what seemed to be an extremely long time. Although a tornado didn’t hit the house I was in, the event definitely had an impact on me. Since then, I’ve had a few more close encounters; a tornado hit a neighborhood nearby my house, I’ve been stuck in a traffic jam during a hurricane evacuation with tornadoes touching down way too close for comfort, and experienced some nasty storms during my summers as a lifeguard. Some of my friends tell me I missed my calling as a weather girl :). I also love watching TV specials and films about tornadoes; Night of the Twisters or Twister anyone?

I think the lack of control and predictability is what intrigues me the most and also contributes to my extreme paranoia. You typically have enough time to prepare, pack up your stuff and get out-of-town when there is a flood, blizzard or hurricane warning. But a tornado can come with little to no warning, destroying everything in its path along the way. The article Kate shared examines the UK project, weatherathome.net – a part of the world’s largest climate forecasting experiment, climateprediction.net, which is performing research to determine how climate change will affect local weather patterns and extreme weather conditions over time. The experts behind the project at the University of Oxford have decided to crowdsource part of the project to anyone who has a computer and Internet connection. They are doing this by providing a module that can be downloaded and ran while your computer is idle. Crowdsourcing data analysis for this project is not only environmentally friendly (you’re recycling spare capacity on your computer), but it also enables powerful research and results that the project leaders couldn’t obtain on their own.

“With the help of the public, we can run the model many more times than we could possibly do even with a supercomputer, so we can literally count one-in-100-year weather events to see how climate change is affecting weather risks,” said Dr Myles Allen, head of the climate dynamics group at the University of Oxford and principal investigator for climateprediction.net.

This is a great example of lowering the Coasean floor — the point below which the transaction costs of a particular type of activity, no matter how valuable to someone, are too high for a standard institutional form to pursue. Clay Shirky discusses this theory in detail in Chapter Two of Here Comes Everybody. Before people had the ability to download this robust data analysis module and send the data they collect back to the climateprediction.net project, this research simply couldn’t be done. But now thanks to technology and the ability to crowdsource part of the research, significant strides are being made to improve regional weather predictions. Thankfully, downloading a module and sending back the data you collect is a little less risky than chasing tornadoes, but collectively, it could be just as impactful.

If this research helps uncover some of the mystery behind extreme weather events, maybe my fear of tornadoes will be alleviated. Things always seem to be a little less terrifying when you understand them better. Just for fun, here’s the classic 90’s country video by Tracy Lawrence, “Texas Tornado.”

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